Friday, 2 August 2013

Is Improvement Possible?

According to the Daily Telegraph, remarks made by Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, during a BBC radio interview on the Daniel Pelka tragedy, have drawn criticism from Peter Saunders, head of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood.

Webb is reported as saying that the number of child abuse deaths was “… remarkably consistent, which tends to suggest that there’s a problem here we will never, ever manage to crack.” In reply Saunders accused Webb of defeatism saying: “We are very interested in people who are supposed to be leading the way but who are almost throwing their hands up and admitting defeat.”

Most sensible people will be inclined to side in this debate with Peter Saunders. It is foolish to believe that nothing more can be done.

But this does not imply, in the wider debate, that something can be done quickly and dramatically. The great fallacy of the Every Child Matters agenda was precisely that – ‘a significant step’ I think Tony Blair called it, when it was nothing of the kind. Throwing policies at child abuse and neglect, and introducing untried and poorly designed systems that are supposed to mark the beginning of a new era, is the territory of the fantasist.

In contrast, what is required is small, incremental, continuous improvement. That means daily learning with the aim of having services that are just a little bit better today than they were yesterday. Modest, achievable and sustainable changes should be initiated by those who actually do the job or be based on an evolving understanding of the needs and wants of children and young people who receive the services.

This kind of continuous improvement can have impressive cumulative results. Services which are made just a little bit better every day will often be substantially better at the end of the year and significantly improved at the end of the decade. But what we do not want are grand policies devised by political and managerial elites, which take years to implement only to be shown to be hollow vessels.